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Higher Education Trends in the 21st Century

  • A quick survey of campuses today reveals a number of higher education trends. Two, in particular, well underway, stand out: technology-driven education and applied education.

    Anyone who went to college in the last millennium immediately notices how ubiquitous technology is on the campus today. In the 1990s, modems were still in use, and access to the internet was slow and erratic for most. iPads and iPhones hadn’t yet been invented. Facebook and Twitter were way in the future. Amazon was in its infancy. Online courses just before the turn to the new millennium were primitive. Online libraries had significant limitations and were cumbersome.

    Today technology is omnipresent. Every student has access to a computer. Most have an iPad or an iPhone or both. Libraries are more technologically oriented and less paper-based repositories of information. Although it probably won’t supplant traditional classroom learning, online education is a permanent feature of what colleges offer. Perhaps most significant in this respect is that a student can access any information s/he wants from anyplace in the world in seconds.

    Some express concern about this constant and overwhelming availability of information. There is a perception that with all this information so readily available, students are less inclined to actually retain knowledge. If the information is constantly there at their fingertips, why bother committing it to memory? And maybe that’s true. But that points to one important direction for higher education.

    The sea of information isn’t likely to get smaller, and our access to it will probably be faster and more seamless, not less so. But what we will require for the students of today and the future is an ability to sort through that information quickly and know how to select from it what is credible. It is more critical than ever before that students know how to determine what is good information and can analyze and use it.

    Teaching research skills has always been a primary function of higher education. Developing that skill is even more important now as we contemplate the sea of information around us. Students must learn how to find, sort, analyze and put information to use more quickly than ever before simply because there is so much of it.

    Another trend is the shift to applied education. As the economy shifts, students and their families are more conscious than ever of value with regard to an educational program. Will this program of study bring tangible results in a job? That’s bad news for the traditional liberal arts degree and good news for those degree programs that prepare a young person for a specific career.

    An Atlantic Monthly article in 2013 pointed out that the steepest part of that decline in liberal arts degrees happened in the 1970s, and it was due primarily to the fact that more women began to enter pre-professional programs instead of completing liberal arts degrees. This trend leveled off somewhat, but colleges still address the phenomenon in a variety of ways, as they must. It is a permanent shift.

    It is probably fair to say that the same concerns that drive young men in this economy motivate young women: the prospect of a program of study that leads to a job, hopefully a job that pays well and competitively. The shift to pre-professional programs and applied education hasn’t solved the issue of workplace inequality for women, but it was a step.

    Some high school programs have begun to create a divide. The Chicago Public Schools Gifted and Talented Selective Enrollment project starts a process of differentiation in fifth grade between Classical Schools and a Gifted and Talented program that focuses more on STEM subjects. The latter program is larger.

    One thing is certain, the college classroom of the future will look different to just the same extent that these differences in the methods and content of higher education look different. As students rely more and more on technology for obtaining information and want their education to prepare them in tangible ways for jobs that actually exist, the physical classroom space will change its purpose. As design serves function, classroom spaces must encourage direct personal interactions between students and their professors, becoming more think-tank environments than lecture halls.

    For more information about changes in the higher education environment and how to set up spaces to accommodate those changes, contact us.